Few apocalyptic films are sweeter than Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. While we already got Roland Emmerich‘s layered, philosophical approach to our pending doomsday, writer-director Lorene Scafaria has provided whimsical competition via an endearing love story set in the midst of our final days.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not a story of one man miraculously saving the day, but a bittersweet tale of the reserved and lonely Dodge (Steve Carell) finally having something to live before it all ends. Dodge’s journey aside, Scafaria’s film is a road movie – which is hardly a simple structure to crack – filled with faces we all know, the creepiest and friendliest restaurant you’ll seen on screen all year, and more atypical apocalyptic escapades.
Here is what Lorene Scafaria had to say about the highs and lows of pitching a film, how her directorial debut has since informed her writing, and the sheer perfection of Adventures in Babysitting:
Comparing this to Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, it’s very much the same voice, but obviously there you were adapting someone else’s work. What’s the greater challenge, using your own voice 100% or having to invoke someone else’s?
I think they’re both challenging. You know, something is made easier by an adaption just because you know you’re given so many characters and characterizations that you’re not totally picking out of thin air. But at the same time, you want to be true to it and do it justice. So especially like fans and stuff, that can be scary. So that’s challenging in that way. And, of course, writing an original is challenging because you’ve got no source material to draw form. At the same time, you don’t owe anybody anything! [Laughs] You’re not trying to do right by something else.
And no strict deadlines, right?
Yeah. Still somewhat deadlines. I sold this as a pitch with myself attached to direct. And so, it was still like drafts. People were waiting for drafts to come in. So it’s not exactly the same pressure as like a rewrite or something.
I read this one interview with you where you said you failed a lot at pitches. What’s that process like for you?
Yeah, I mean in the beginning it was amazing. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is what pitching is like?” And it really was more so that I was just starting out. People were interested but I was also so cheap that anything I went in with they were sort of willing to pay like five dollars to have your idea. [Laughs] And then as I went along, it wasn’t so much that my price tag was anything, but maybe the material wasn’t as high concept or something like that. And going around and pitching, like, I remember I had to pitch something 11 times in four days. I was just like, “This is brutal.” And halfway through the first one I went, “Oh, this isn’t going to sell.” I still had to go to 10 more. Just the feeling of that, it’s pretty rough when it’s not going well. When it’s going well you feel like you are the leader of a circus, and it’s great. I’m sure people find pitching nerve wracking every time. I think if it’s a positive experience it’s kind of great. I sold this as a pitch and then you go and you write the first draft. With something like this, that was so high concept to start, but also all about the characters, it was just a challenge that once I handed it in that the studios and everybody would see it the same way.
I’m sure those failed pitches are a good thing where you do learn how to go about selling a movie.
Yeah. Even more so, like, what is a movie? What makes a movie? Certain things you can’t pitch. Like, some of your favorite films, those aren’t pitches. You can’t wrap them up in one sentence. You know, certainly great movies don’t have to come out of good pitches or anything like that, but it helps you realize how much there’s a difference between what’s cinematic and what’s not. You know, what’s really a story and what’s not. I mean, for me anyway, it doesn’t have to be completely high concept, although I think that does help in terms of pitching. But having a very clear sort of scene is part of it.
You mentioned the idea of what is and is not cinematic. Did you learn more about that through this process, like what works on the page versus onscreen?
Yeah. That was a real learning process because…well, writing now is much more difficult because of realizing what it takes to do that. I’m much more precious about what I put on the page because I’m like, “Oh, you know, if you get a production designer and they take that thing seriously,” you know, they actually go out and find a fishbowl… [Laughs] It’s cool that, for the most part, you can do that, but it does tell you what will work or not.
I do think that hearing things out loud is always a good idea, because some things really do read well and some great scripts aren’t great movies. I do think that hearing it out loud at least informs us somewhat what the story will be like.
Do you always do that, just read through the script out loud?
I did. [Laughs] My mom lives in LA now. But when she lived in Jersey I would always call her and read it to her out loud over the phone. My mother is the kindest audience, so I would start there. [Laughs] But yeah, it always seemed like a good idea to hear it out loud, even if it’s still in my own rhythm and exactly what I wish it was. With this we actually got to have a reading of it about four months before we cast it, really, to kinda test the material and see how it held up in court.
Did you do a table read?
We didn’t get to do anything. We really only had like 1 ½ rehearsal days with just Steve and Keira and that was it. So I never got to hear it with the cast or anything like that. I think it was a challenge even just to get everybody to come together for those days.
Did you find that beneficial at all? The movie does have a spontaneous vibe to it.
Yeah. The casting process was so fun for me, because really, trying to build a world of faces was really amazing. You know, you spread out everybody’s head shots sort of, or pictures. I mean Steve Carrel’s headshot is not on the wall. [Laughs] But you take out everybody’s pictures and spread them out on the wall and you look, and you are like, “Oh, this is our community. This is our little city that we’re building.” And it’s so neat to see, like, if someone’s schedule didn’t work out and you plug someone else in, and what that does to everything. That was fascinating.
When you looked at those headshots, was it gratifying to think, “I get to kill all the coolest people on the planet.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well yeah, that was fun, the idea that all these people would perish.
[Laughs] I’m sure Robert Corddry survived.
I think he’ll make it. You know, Patton [Oswalt] maybe. But yeah, Corddry…
He’ll make it, for sure. I imagine one of the challenges was having no B or C storyline. You don’t cut to the Pentagon or NASA, purely sticking with Dodge and Penny.
I think it’s especially [difficult] because it’s romantic and you want to watch people sort of fall in love in real time. I feel like that was the biggest challenge. Because you can’t leave them for too long to go…In Nick and Norah, I suppose we were able to cut to Caroline. In this case you’re really just riding with them straight the whole time. I always sort of liked that, especially because, rather than waiting for the news to hit, we start it right away and let’s just see how we just push a barrel over a cliff [Laughs], and how long do we follow it for?
I think it’s a real challenge not just plotting-wise, but really following the character’s relationship is something, and hoping that each of them has an arc in there and hoping they, as a pair, end up conveying that over time.
I would say the romance part of it seems like the trickiest thing. Maybe it might be less tricky doing sort of an Adventures in Babysitting style or something like that. [Laughs] Although that’s a perfect film. It’s amazing. Please, I watched it so much for Nick and Norah. I’m like, “We’re going to get Caroline lost…” [Laughs]
[Laughs] It’s one of the best films ever made, actually. Did you have any of those scenes that just drove you nuts during the writing process? In particular, how about the scene between Dodge and his dad?
Well you know what’s funny, it was even more restrained until we casted [that]. And then I was like, “Well, there has to be more for this man! [Laughs] This great actor!” I do think the biggest challenge is allowing for those moments, for positive moments where you’re not feeling like, “Oh, I need to tell a joke here. I need to keep the audience going.” I think that is a challenge and to sort of let yourself go with it. That scene really was underwritten for as long as I could do it. Then once we casted, I was like, “I owe it to this person to do it.”
And so, it’s still underwritten in a way, but hopefully it conveys everything. That was a challenge. And really, in general, the main thing was realizing that I was taking these two genres and sort of smashing them together and not wanting to make a true mash-up or something. But taking those two ideas and really wanting to…realize, like as I go, “Oh, the riot scene needs to be a breakup scene also.” It was just a big moment for me to realize like, “Oh, I have to take these two things and I have to put them together.” The Friendzy’s and the orgy were separate for a long time. And so things like that were just crucial to figuring out the structure of it all.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World opens in theaters on June 22nd.